If You’re Going to Survey Students About Teachers, Do it Right

If You’re Going to Survey Students About Teachers, Do it Right

A recent New York Times piece explored the question, “Should Students Be Able to Grade Their Teachers?” The author invited students to comment, and their opinions poured in.

Students were overwhelmingly in favor of the idea, not surprisingly. The most common sentiment was essentially, “Students learn from teachers, and teachers can learn from students.” Several teachers also commented; one said, “From a teacher’s standpoint, I want a student’s opinion. As times change, teachers need to know that they are still staying on top of what is current and connecting with students. Who better to ask than the ones who are learning?”

Others expressed the valid concern that students would not grade fairly, but instead react emotionally.

At Panorama Education, we have been helping school districts survey not only students, but also teachers, parents and administrators, for several years. We’ve created an open-source set of survey questions that any district can access and tailor to their specific needs.

We’ve found that surveying students can be an extremely effective practice that yields valuable data that can help improve the learning environment. But several survey design practices are essential.

First, in order to create a balanced mosaic, it’s critical that the survey explore four key areas:

  • Pedagogical Effectiveness: This scale measures students’ perceptions of a teacher’s instructional methods and delivery of content. Example question: How clearly does this teacher present the information that you need to learn?
  • Classroom Environment: This scale measures students’ perceptions of the overall classroom climate including the classroom’s physical, social and psychological environment. Example question: How often do students behave well in this class?
  • Expectations and Rigor: This scale measures students’ perceptions of the extent to which their teacher holds them to high expectations around their effort, understanding, persistence and performance in their class. Example question: How much does this teacher encourage you to do your best?
  • Student Engagement: This scale measures students’ perceptions of their attention to and investment in what goes on in the classroom. Example question: In this class, how much do you participate?

Additional scales to consider include:

  • Supportive Relationships: This scale measures students’ perceptions of a teacher’s care and support for their personal development and well being beyond the classroom. Example question: How interested is this teacher in what you do outside of class?
  • Sense of Belonging: This scale measures the extent to which students feel that they are valued members of their school’s community. Example question: How connected do you feel to the adults at your school?
  • Interest in Subject: This scale measures how interesting, important, and useful a student considers a specific subject. Example question: How often do you use ideas from [SUBJECT] class in your daily life?
  • Grit: This scale measures a student's ability to persevere through setbacks to achieve important long-term goals. Example question: If you fail to reach an important goal, how likely are you to try again?
  • Learning Strategies: This scale measures the extent to which students deliberately use strategies to actively manage their own learning process. Example question: Before you start working on your schoolwork, how often do you think about the best way to approach the work?

Surveying across all of these scales ensures that districts collect a broad enough set of data to evaluate teachers fairly. If one were to explore just one scale--say, Interest in Subject--it might unfairly punish teachers who teach subjects students think are boring.

There are also some best practices to follow with respect to wording specific survey items. For instance, each item should be worded as a question, rather than a statement, in line with overwhelming research showing that students’ feedback is more valid when items are worded as questions rather than statements.

Districts also need to make sure that each question is relevant and can be answered by all people who will be responding, so that they will be motivated to complete the survey. This may require different, simpler wording for younger children. We generally recommend one set of questions for grades K-5, and another for grades 6-12.

Avoid survey items that use “agree/disagree” responses--as research shows that people often “agree” regardless of their true attitude.

Districts also need to clearly explain the purpose of the survey--generally, something along the lines of collecting their feedback because you believe it’s valuable and it can help improve the quality of learning for all students at the school--so that students understand it’s worth their time.

Today, it is extremely common for for-profit businesses to collect and leverage feedback from their customers for business advantage. More and more school districts are coming to the realization that they should be doing the same in order to create advantage for a much more important reason: preparing our students to be productive, responsible members of their community.

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